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Our Rich History: Betty Clooney, ‘the best of us,’ and part of ‘devoted’ and famous sister singing act

By John Schlipp
Special to NKyTribune

Sibling singing acts have been around since families sang together for after-dinner amusement before the days of plentiful prime-time broadcast entertainment. As mass media entertaining developed with radio and records, highly talented acts catapulted beyond their local churches, schools, and community events.

Our region’s memorable sibling acts include: 98 Degrees (Nick and Drew Lachey), The Mills Brothers, The Isley Brothers, The Williams Brothers (including Andy), The McGuire Sisters, and The Clooney Sisters (Rosemary and Betty).

Some may not be as familiar with Betty Clooney as her legendary jazz singing sister, Rosemary (or famous nephew George Clooney). Yet Betty left an endearing legacy as a pioneering personality of live television. The sisters also became one of the famous sibling singing acts of the region to gain national fame during the Big Band era of the 1940s. 

Rosemary Clooney shared top billing, along with Bing Crosby, in the perennial holiday film favorite, White Christmas (1954).

What many may not realize is that it was no coincidence that the film’s plot dealt with a singing sisters’ act, including one named Betty. The story was loosely based upon the Clooney Sisters’ days travelling with the Tony Pastor Orchestra. Betty and Rosemary recorded a duet performance of the Irving Berlin tune, “Sisters,” from the classic movie White Christmas on the Columbia label, with lyrics opening: “…sisters — there were never such devoted sisters…” See and hear them singing on a vintage YouTube television clip from the 1950s at https://youtu.be/eIOLUXgiTTc.

Betty and Rosemary Clooney. (Photo courtesy of Nick and Nina Clooney.)

Betty and Rosemary Clooney. (Photo courtesy of Nick and Nina Clooney.)

Betty, Rosemary, and (little brother) Nick, were siblings, born to parents Andrew and Francis (Guilfoyle) Clooney. All three children were born in Maysville, Kentucky. Betty, born on April 12, 1931, was the middle child. Rosemary and Betty spent most of their childhood with their maternal grandmother Guilfoyle in Maysville.

As brother Nick shared in his Cincinnati/Kentucky Post column on July 19, 2006, “From the time Rosemary and Betty could talk, they sang together.” He continued, “they learned to how to phrase songs together almost from the cradle.” So when they sang solo, they were often mistaken for one another on radio or records. 

The teenaged sisters moved to Cincinnati to live with relatives, including their father who worked at a defense plant during World War II. At this time, the sisters auditioned for, and were hired as, regular singers for two years on Cincinnati’s 50,000-watt clear channel WLW-AM radio station. 

WLW was known as the “Nation’s Station,” because of its exclusive legal broadcasting at a powerful 500,000 watts between the years of 1934 and 1939. Besides the Clooney Sisters, WLW cultivated the early careers of Red Skelton, Doris Day, Fats Waller, The Ink Spots, The Mills Brothers, Andy Williams, Chet Atkins, Rod Sterling, Merle Travis, and others.

The Clooney Sisters’ radio performances caught the attention of a talent scout for nationally known big band leader, Tony Pastor. The sisters were hired as the lead singers for Pastor’s band. Their uncle, George Guilfoyle (namesake for his great nephew George Clooney), became their legal guardian and accompanied the two teenage singers. Betty was only 15, while Rosemary was 17.

Towards the end of the three years with Pastor’s orchestra, Betty realized that Rosemary’s potential as a solo act was inevitable. Like the movie plot of White Christmas, Betty made the ultimate sacrifice to resign, allowing Rosemary to advance her career recording as a solo artist for Columbia records in New York City.

Betty then returned to Cincinnati during the formative years of WLW’s regional television network, which then included WLWT in Cincinnati, WLWD in Dayton, and WLWC in Columbus (and eventually WLWA in Atlanta and WLWI in Indianapolis). Her work at WLWT included supporting legendary Ruth Lyons and her highly popular 50 Club midday program (later retitled 50-50 Club). Betty’s additional WLWT programs included Boy Meets Girl, Teen Canteen, and others. At this time, Betty recorded among the first pop tunes released at King Records, a local label nationally known for its regular output of rhythm and blues, as well as country music.

Soon Betty was signed up as a solo act to perform at the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf Hotel in New York City in the early 1950s. During this time, she appeared as a guest on several national television programs, including the highly popular Gary Moore Show. Brother Nick recounted in his Post column that Betty had an inherent manner of relating to the camera, like a person. Television viewers felt as if she were speaking or singing directly to them. This developed into steady national network television casting on Jack Paar’s Morning Show on CBS, where she met and worked with Pupi Campo, a bandleader and her husband-to-be.

Later, Betty notably appeared as a regular on the CBS daytime Robert Q. Lewis Show. 

After starting a family with Campo, Betty returned briefly to network television in the early 1960s as a supporting cast member of NBC’s Today morning news program. After a few guest appearances on Nick’s local Cincinnati daytime television programs in the early 1970s, Rosemary and Betty discussed comeback plans for a singing sisters’ reunion tour. Sadly, it never happened, as Betty died of a brain aneurism at age 45 in 1976.

In Betty’s memory, Rosemary and Nick introduced the Betty Clooney Foundation in 1983 and opened the Betty Clooney Center in Long Beach, California in 1988 on Betty’s birthday, April 12th. The Center treats persons with traumatic brain injury: http://www.bcftbi.org/

When sharing biographical information about his sister Betty with me for an entry in the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky (2009), Nick Clooney stated, “She was the best of us.”

Rosemary Clooney likewise affirmed the strong character of her sister as the stability that kept their family together. After Betty’s passing, Rosemary said in her memoir Girl Singer (1999), “Betty had been our conduit, helping us know one another, keeping things smooth.” Perhaps the Irving Berlin song lyrics were more biographical than we realized, “…sisters — there were never such devoted sisters…”

John Schlipp is an Associate Professor and Intellectual Property Librarian at NKU’s Steely Library. He also directs the Intellectual Property Awareness Center (IPAC) at NKU, assisting everyone from inventors to musicians in becoming aware of their intellectual property. The IPAC is an official Patent & Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. See http://ipac.nku.edu for details about this free community service.

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One Comment

  1. Marjorie Marshall says:

    I’m saddened to hear of this Phenomenal Woman ‘s transition, What an Inspiration, She And Her Entire Family have made a Great contribution, with Their gifts and talents to the World!✅

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